Enjoying the Taste of Power: What is wrong with Chinese University Student Clubs?

“Don’t bargain with me!”

“You deserve this kind of attitude.”

These words sound more like a daily argument that you would hear on the streets. But surprisingly, that is how a Zhejiang University student union staff member talks to the student union’s corporate sponsors on Wechat.

As one of the best universities in China, Zhejiang University faced public backlash and later claimed that the student is not a student union staff member, but rather an ordinary student. However, the public’s anger did not stop, as the incident is only one of the many Chinese university student unions’ scandal in the recent past.

Earlier in July, student union staff members from Sun Yat-Sen University (SYSU) released a nomination of its latest student leaders and student union officials. Instead of being an organization that serves and helps university students, SYSU Student Union turned out to look like the exact opposite: its hierarchical structures are making it look more like a bureaucratic local government instead of an active student organization. While facing criticism from numerous media outlets, those working for the student unions even started to fight back and question the media for ‘not realizing the truth’ and ‘not consulting every single SYSU student.’

The list goes on and on: From forcing students to change their Weibo usernames to like, comment, and share student union social media content, to senior student unions staff members scolding new student union members from calling and mentioning the Student Union President in a group chat. There are also stories such as requiring a 5000-word pleading letter to quit the student union. These stories, while shocking and somehow absurd, are revealing a serious issue that widely exists among Chinese university student unions: The taste of power is simply too good to give up. And students in the system are starting to abuse their delusional power on campus.

Unlike elected officials in student unions and clubs in western countries, staff and students working for Chinese university student unions do not have to go through the same process. Instead of running a campaign, talking to student voters and winning the election, Chinese student union leaders are usually appointed by university staff or former student union leaders. Perhaps some universities have various forms of pseudo-elections, the reality is that these elections are neither independent nor fair.

Inheriting their recognition without the consent of a general student body, student union staff would definitely feel less connected to regular students. Instead, these student officials would be more connected to the university staff and former officials who authorized their power in these organizations.

Within student groups and student bodies, these student union members seem to have unchecked and unlimited power: They face very few challenges on campus. And certainly, that taste of power, that feeling of bossing fellow students around, and that feeling of having students praising and coddling can be addictive.

Instead of becoming that person to help the student community, to implement changes to make campus better, or even to reform the university education system, student union leaders are becoming more bureaucratic to preserve their power and positions in the top of their self-created pyramid: Why bother doing anything, when they have already gotten the recognition and fame.

Consequently, we are not likely to see Chinese University student unions acting like their counterparts in the western countries. Student leaders in China will not organize rallies to protest policies against university students or push for changes for improving students’ well-being and health. These practices, while commonly seen in student movements and student organizations in the west, are not at all aligned with the goals and plans that Chinese university student unions have.

The bureaucratic practices, the arrogant attitudes, and the lack of open and sincere communication that are observed in student unions are sadly some true reflections of the Chinese society. While media comments and Internet users are mocking and laughing at these students for imitating these practices, these struggles not uncommon in China. Even regular Chinese citizens face these types of struggles and hardships from time to time.

When the student union officials step out of their ivory towers, they will realize that their experiences on campus won’t offer them much prestige or privilege, and they will understand that those unnecessary practices were not ideal at all.

While China‘s political systems and the Chinese society may have something to do with the struggles in Chinese universities, the status-quo, and the social structures should not be excuses for current students to behave like that. Instead of awkwardly imitating the practices that already exist in Chinese society, students should be innovative and continuously strive for better changes.

It is the time for university students to understand, that a real student union should not be arrogant and obnoxious. In fact, a good student union should be the student body that helps, comprehends, and fights for the rights of students for a better future.

Featured photo credit to weibo account easter-恐龙蛋